Bowie obliterates boundaries on his blazing ‘Blackstar’
Has there ever been a pop star cooler than David Bowie? Through a career spanning nearly 50 years and a wide assortment of styles and genres— including a few he helped pioneer— this multifaceted artist and personality has continued to pique our curiosity without compromising or embarrassing himself.
Not all of Bowie’s projects have been mind-blowing, of course; but his latest album, Blackstar— out Friday, his 69th birthday— is an unqualified triumph. Texturally adventurous, sonically stunning and full of both ambivalence and yearning, it reveals a musician who has seldom acknowledged boundaries or courted accessibility in top form, with most accessible results.
Produced by Bowie and longtime colleague Tony Visconti,
Blackstar sprang from a period of intense creativity: December marked the off-Broadway opening of Lazarus, amusical Bowie cowrote with Irish playwright Enda Walsh and inspired by the novel
The Man Who Fell to Earth— the source material for the 1976 film of the same name, which starred Bowie as an alien on a lonely mission. The album features a song used in the show, the single
Lazarus, a six-minutes-plus scorcher with piercing, crashing guitar riffs and mournful saxophone lines that at one point segue to a cacophonous wail.
Dissonance and melodic pull co-exist, radiantly, throughout
Blackstar. On the title track, which clocks in at just under 10 minutes (most of the seven tunes are about half that length), syncopated drums reverberate frantically in an Eastern-flavored arrangement that nods to jazz (a central influence on the album), electronica and symphonic rock. There’s more sax (courtesy of Donny McCaslin, one of the album’s MVPs), along with surging synth chords and strains of flute; a trippy bridge features stately strings, arranged by Bowie, who sings, “I want eagles inmy daydreams and diamonds inmy eyes.”
By which Bowie means ... well, who knows, exactly? Elusiveness has always been central to his appeal, enabling him to adopt alter egos and use other theatrical and ironic gestures without sacrificing emotional urgency. If the lyrics on Blackstar can be enigmatic, the music is anything but, assaulting and embracing the listener with direct and irresistible force. ’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore comes at us with a relentless groove, offering long, wild instrumental passages.
Dollar Days is warmer and more bittersweet, with caressing acoustic guitar and piano. On I Can’t Give Everything Away, guitars and keyboards swell over a desolate refrain, building with other instruments to a soaring climax.
“I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen,” Bowie sings in Lazarus.
Blackstar reaffirms both his gift for flash and the soulfulness that sustains it — the fire under his chilly exterior, which by all indications is burning as brightly as ever.